Category Archives: Pastor’s Note

All Saints Day and the Seven New Saints of the Church

The historical origins of the Feast of All Saints which we have just celebrated involves the transformation of one of Rome’s most impressive pagan temples the Pantheon into a Catholic Church.  The Pantheon, originally dedicated to one of the military victories of Caesar Augustus, was given by the Emperor Phocas (a Christian) to the Pope (Boniface IV) in the early Seventh Century A.D.

After having the Pantheon purified Pope Boniface had a great many of the relics of the Early Church martyrs brought to it in preparation for the Dedication.  Twenty-eight wagons full of relics were unloaded!  On May 13th, A.D. 610 the Pope dedicated this new church in honor of Mary the Mother of God and All the Holy Martyrs, Sancta Maria ad Martyres.

Most fittingly a Feast of All Martyrs commenced on this day, May 13th, which always fell during the celebration of Paschaltide.  Should not the martyrs who shed their life-blood for Christ not also be especially honored during the season of the Year when the Church celebrates Christ’s Resurrection?

In the early 9th Century, however, Pope Gregory IV (reigned 827-844), transferred this feast from May 13th to November 1st, and widened its celebration to include all the Saints, and not just the blood-martyrs.  By this time the Church’s
veneration of non-martyr saints was well-established.  A likely practical explanation for this transfer is the difficulty of providing food for large numbers of pilgrims in the spring-time.  November 1st—after the harvest—was more suitable.  The celebration of All Saints Day on November 1st easily draws us in to thoughts of the Church’s Harvest Time in the Second Coming of Christ.  These days of November emphasize the mystery of the consummation of all things when Christ shall return to earth in His glory. The souls of the faithful departed, already secure in their salvation, await their resurrection.  We who are still on earth consider our “last end”, and the account which we must make to Christ of our lives.

At the canonization Mass in Rome of the seven new saints of the Church three weeks ago on October 14th, first-class relics of them were placed in reliquaries at the foot of Our Lady’s statue.  See the PHOTO at the top of the column, from Catholic News Service, by Paul Haring. (This is a gesture reminiscent of the original dedication of the Pantheon to Our Lady and all the Holy Martyrs in 610.) According to the article which appeared in the Boston Pilot on October 19th (“Relics Offer Physical Reminder that Saints Were Real People”, by Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service) the contents of the formal reliquaries are as follows:

  • Pope St. Paul VI: the blood-stained undershirt from when he was stabbed by a would-be assassin in 1970.
  • St. Oscar Romero: a bone fragment.
  • St. Francesco Spinelli: a bone from his foot.
  • St. Vincenzo Romano: a vertebra.
  • St. Nunzio Sulprizio: a bone fragment from his finger.
  • St. Catherine Kasper: a bone fragment from her back.
  • St. Nazaria Ignacia March Mesa: a lock of her hair.

Our Catholic veneration of relics is a testament to our faith in Christ’s promise of a general resurrection to come and of our vital belief that God hears the prayers of His Saints.  He continues to work good on earth by means of them, even by means of their earthly ashes.

Fr. Higgins
(Fr. Higgins)

(Pastor’s Note from the Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Parish Bulletin for November 4, 2018)

Father Faber on “Taking Scandal”

In one of the Conferences published in an 1858 collection entitled Spiritual Conferences, Fr. Frederick William Faber of the London Oratory chose the topic On Taking Scandal. Addressing an audience of English Catholics, many of them converts like himself, he dissects the curious ways in which religious people in particular relish in the emotional satisfaction of taking scandal at the wrong-doing, actual or suspected, of others.  He says:

To give scandal is a great fault, but to take scandal is a greater fault.  It implies a greater amount of wrongness in ourselves, and it gives a greater amount of mischief to others. Nothing gives scandal sooner than a quickness to take scandal.  They regard it as a sort of evidence of their own goodness, and of their delicacy of conscience; while in reality it is only a proof either of their inordinate conceit, or of their extreme stupidity…Moreover the persons in question seem frequently to feel and act, as if their profession of piety involved some kind of official appointment to take scandal. It is their business to take scandal.  It is their way of bearing testimony to God.  It would show a blameable inertness in the spiritual life, if they did not take scandal.  They think they suffer very much while they are taking scandal; whereas in truth they enjoy it amazingly.  It is a pleasurable excitement, which delightfully varies the monotony of devotion.  They do not in reality fall over their neighbor’s fault, nor does it in itself hinder them in the way of holiness, nor do they love God less because of it, all of which ought to be implied in taking scandal.  But they trip themselves up on purpose, and take care that it shall be opposite some fault of their neighbor, in order that they may call attention to the difference between him and themselves.

Dwelling on the wickedness of others, in other words, does not make us virtuous.  I would add that it could even make us worse because a person can easily fall into self-justification of one’s own faults and sins on the excuse that, “well, what I do is nothing compared to….

Father Faber points out in this same conference that “taking scandal” is not a characteristic of the lives of the Saints.

I do not remember to have read of any saint who ever took scandal… Every time we take scandal we run a great risk of sinning, and a manifold risk as well as a great one.  We run the risk of impairing God’s glory, of dishonoring our Blessed Lord, of giving substantial scandal to others, of breaking the precept of charity ourselves, of highly culpable indiscretion, and, at the very least, of grieving the Holy Spirit in our own souls.

So then, what is the proper spiritual disposition we should strive to cultivate when we are confronted by undoubted facts of wickedness, and if we are to avoid “taking scandal” in the pharisaic way which Fr. Faber preached against during his lifetime in the High Victorian Age? It is our own co-operation with grace in our continuing conversion to Christ.

This is perfection, this is the temper and genius of saints and saint-like men. It is a life of desire, oblivious of earthly things.  It is a radiant energetic faith, that man’s slowness and coldness will not interfere with the success of God’s glory.  Yet all the while it is instinctively fighting, by prayer and reparation, against evils… No shadow of moroseness ever falls over the bright mind of a saint. It is not possible that this should do so.  Finally, perfection has the gift of entering into the universal spirit of God, who is worshipped in so many different ways, and is content.

Fr. Higgins
(Fr. Higgins)

(Pastor’s Note from the Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Parish Bulletin for September 2, 2018)

Capital Punishment

This summer has seen some interesting reactions to Pope Francis’s instruction to revise the teaching on capital punishment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church so that it declares the “inadmissibility” of the death penalty in criminal justice.  Much of the media treated this revision as a kind of bombshell.  The Pope had changed a teaching of the Church! (So what else couldn’t a Pope change then if he really wanted to!)

Needless to say, this was media hype.  The Pope hardly imposed a “new teaching”.  As it stood, the teaching in the Catechism already practically closed the door to capital punishment.  This current entry had been revised once before since the Catechism’s original publication in 1994 in order to make the practical prohibition stronger.  Anyone who has followed debates on the death penalty over the last few decades knows how consistently the Catholic Church has been opposing it.  It would be more accurate to describe Pope Francis’s revision as a logical end-point, bringing the Church’s official teaching into line with the development of its stance on a particular public policy issue.

How unwarranted, therefore, is the reaction among some of those in the “watchdog” Catholic media who have accused Pope Francis of recklessly changing “unchangeable” Church teaching, darkly hinting that the Pope’s latest action may even constitute “heresy”.  What arrant nonsense from people who should know better!

One can trace the development of the Church’s present total opposition to the use of capital punishment in criminal justice systems all the way back to the seminal work of the man who is considered the founder of the abolition movement for torture and capital punishment, Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794).  Here is an example of his writing as we find it in the article on Punishment (capital) in the 1911 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia.

“The punishment of death is not authorized by any right; for I have demonstrated that no such right exists.  It is, therefore, a war of a whole nation against a citizen, whose destruction they consider as necessary or useful to the general good.  But, if I can further demonstrate that it is neither necessary nor useful to the general good, I shall have gained the cause of humanity.  The death of a citizen can be necessary in one case only: when, though deprived of his liberty, he has such power and connexions as may endanger the security of the nation; when his existence may produce a dangerous revolution in the established form of government.  But even in this case , it can only become necessary when a nation is on the verge of recovering or losing its liberty; or in times of absolute anarchy, when the disorders themselves hold the place of laws.  But in a reign of tranquility; in a form of government approved by the united wishes of the nation; in a state fortified from enemies without, and supported by strength within; …where all power is lodged in the hands of the true sovereign; where riches can purchase pleasure and not authority, there can be no necessity for taking the away the life of a subject….The punishment of death is pernicious to society, from the example of barbarity it affords.  If the passions, or necessity of war, have taught men to shed the blood of their fellow creatures, the laws which are intended to moderate the ferocity of mankind should not increase it by examples of barbarity, the more horrible as this punishment is usually attended with formal pageantry Is it not absurd that the laws, which detect and punish homicide, should, in order to prevent murder, publicly commit murder themselves?” (On Crimes and Punishments, 1764)

Fr. Higgins
(Fr. Higgins)

(Pastor’s Note from the Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Parish Bulletin for August 19, 2018)

The Lourdes Pilgimage of the Mother of ST. Therese of Lisieux

Between 18-22 June 1877, Zélie Martin, the mother of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the “Little Flower”, made a pilgrimage to Lourdes seeking a miraculous cure from the metastasizing breast cancer that was rapidly killing her.  (Zélie and her husband Louis are themselves now canonized saints of the Church: they were canonized by Pope Francis in 2015.  Their feast-day is July 12th, for the anniversary of their marriage.  They were married in a church at midnight on the night of July 12th-13th, 1858.)

As strong Catholics the Martin were believers in the Apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes, which had received the approbation of the Church.  Louis Martin had been part of the first national pilgrimage in 1873, for the spiritual regeneration of France, and again in 1875.  Given her deteriorating condition Zélie Martin went in haste to Lourdes on the first organized pilgrimage she could find.  She went without her husband, accompanied only by her three oldest daughters Marie, Pauline and Léonie.

She went with the conviction of faith that she would be miraculously healed, if God willed it for her through Mary.  As she wrote in a letter to her sister-in-law: “I do not count on anything by the help of the Good Mother.  If she wishes it, she can cure me, she has cured many other sick people.”

The pilgrimage, however, filled with mishaps and personal misfortunes, did not result in a miraculous cure.  Madame Martin died on August 28th, 1878, at the age of 46.  Her youngest daughter Thérèse was only four years old.

It was a struggle for Zélie to come to terms with her impending death, but she accepted it, as we know now from her letters to family members at the time.  Just before the pilgrimage to Lourdes she had confided to her brother how she was praying that if the Blessed Virgin would not obtain a cure for her, then that she would cure her daughter Léonie, who had what we would identify today as severe developmental problems.  After the pilgrimage she was inspired to meditate deeply on the words of Our Lady to Bernadette, “I do not promise to make you happy in this life, but in the next,” and their application to her in her situation.

And in a letter to her daughter Pauline the mother counseled against disappointment:

I wish to know in what spiritual dispositions you find yourself in and if you’re still angry against the Blessed Virgin?  Don’t expect a lot of joys on this earth, you will have a great many disappointments.  Courage and confidence [“courage et confiance”] Pray with faith to the Mother of Mercies, she will come to your aid with the goodness and the sweetness of the most tender of Mothers.

Fr. Higgins
(Fr. Higgins)

(Pastor’s Note from the Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Parish Bulletin for July 22, 2018)

Father T.J. Danahy and the Church Dedication

I am indebted to parishioner Martha Phillips for discovering a key fact with regard to the renaming of St. Mary’s parish to “Mary Immaculate of Lourdes” at the new church’s dedication in 1910: it was in fulfillment of a vow Fr. Danahy had made.

His cousin, Elizabeth Cavanagh, said that Fr. Danahy damaged his vision while studying for the priesthood, and that he went to Lourdes where he regained his lost sight. He vowed then to build a church in honor of the Blessed Virgin. He built Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Church in Newton Upper Falls, and served as its pastor for 33 years until his death. He died at the rectory at 76 years of age.


Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Church as it looked at its Dedication (1910).
Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Church as it looked at its Dedication (1910).

Such a detail makes the re-naming of the parish church especially moving: to consider the element that this whole beautiful edifice of this church is itself a votive offering of thanksgiving by a miraculé, the church’s own pastor who received the healing of his sight at Lourdes.

Fr. Higgins
(Fr. Higgins)

Pastor’s Note from the Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Bulletin for November 26, 2017

The Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, 100 Years Ago

October the 13th this year marked the 100th Anniversary of the great sign of the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, Portugal. I have used for our Bulletin front cover this striking picture, reproduced in The Latin Mass Magazine, of the people awestruck by what they are seeing in the sky above.

The Miracle at Fatima
The Miracle at Fatima, cover of the October 29, 2017 bulletin

In the July 13th Apparition Our Lady had told the children: “In October…I will work a miracle so that all will see and believe.” In expectation of this promised miracle tens of thousands of people went to the Cova da Iria beginning on October 12th—people of all kinds, good and bad, believers and unbelievers.  The crowd estimate was 70,000 people.  A soaking rain continued all through the night and until 12 Noon solar time on the 13th when Our Lady appeared to the three shepherd children as she had promised.  At the end of the Apparition all of the people began to experience the sun changing its appearance in the sky.

Here is the description of Avelino de Almeida, Editor in Chief of O Seculo, the liberal and anti-clerical daily newspaper of Lisbon, who witnessed the event:

“One could see the immense multitude turn towards the sun, which appeared at its zenith, coming out of the clouds.  It resembles a dull silver disc, and it is possible to fix one’s eyes on it without the least damage to the eye.  It does not burn the eyes.  It does not blind them.  One might say that an eclipse was taking place.  An immense clamor bursts out, and those who are nearer to the crowd hear a shout: ‘Miracle! Miracle! Prodigy!… Prodigy!…”

“The attitude of the people takes us back to biblical times.  Stupefied and with heads uncovered, they watch the blue sky.  Before their dazzled eyes the sun trembled, the sun made unusual and brusque movements, defying all the laws of the cosmos, and according to the typical expression of the peasants, ‘the sun danced…’ What did I see at Fatima that was even stranger?  The rain, at an hour announced in advance, ceased falling; the thick mass of clouds dissolved; and the sun—a dull silver disc—came into view at its zenith, and began to dance in a violent and convulsive movement, which a great number of witnesses compared to a serpentine dance, because the colors taken on by the surface of the sun were so beautiful and gleaming.”

“Miracle, as the people shouted?  A natural phenomenon, as the learned would say?  For the moment I do not trouble myself with finding out, but only with affirming what I saw…The rest is a matter between Science and the Church.” (Quoted in The Whole Truth About Fatima: Science and the Facts, by Frère Michel de la Sainte Trinité, Immaculate Heart Publications, English translation edition, 1989.)

In his Pastoral Letter authorizing the cultus of Our Lady of Fatima (October 13th, 1930), the diocesan Bishop José Alves Correia da Silva cited this great sign of the public miracle as a motive for believing in the supernatural character of the Fatima Apparitions.

“The solar phenomenon of the 13th of October, 1917, described in the papers at the time, was something marvelous and caused a great impression upon those who had the happiness to witness it…This phenomenon which no observatory has registered, and therefore, was not a natural one, was observed by persons of all ranks and social classes, believers and unbelievers, journalists of the principal Portuguese dailies and even by persons kilometers away, all of which eliminates the idea that it was a collective illusion.” (quoted from The Latin Mass, Fall 2017, p. 80)

Fr. Higgins
(Fr. Higgins)

Pastor’s Note from the Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Bulletin for October 29, 2017

Prayer for Peace and the Fatima Message

Last month an obituary appeared in the New York Times for a retired colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, Stanislav Petrov (“Stanislav Petrov, 77; Soviet Who Helped Avert a Nuclear War”).  Early on the morning of September 26th, 1983, Lt. Col. Petrov, 44 years old, was a few hours into his shift as the duty officer at Serpukhov-15, the secret command center where the Soviet Union monitored its early-warning satellites over the U.S., when the alarms went off.  The computers were telling them that the U.S. had launched 5 Minuteman Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles against the U.S.S.R.

At that moment the Cold War between the USA and Soviet Russia was worsening.  Only three weeks before the Soviets had shot down a Korean Airlines passenger plane which had strayed into its airspace. (One of our parishioners from Mary Immaculate of Lourdes was on that plane: Mrs. Hiroko Ikeda Stevens.  William Stevens Jr. and Hiroko Ikeda had been married at Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Church on January 1st, 1983.  Her bereaved husband built a peace garden in her memory which is preserved at our parish cemetery of St. Mary’s.)

When the alarms went off then on that September morning it was not at all implausible that the USA had decided to strike in a surprise attack.  As the duty officer, it was Lt. Col. Petrov’s role to make the call to his superiors and thereby set the chain of events in motion for a Soviet retaliatory strike.

Years later, in an interview with the BBC, the retired Soviet officer described what had happened:

“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike.  But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay.  All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders—but I couldn’t move.  I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.” (NYTimes, ibid.)

He ended up making the decision that it was a system malfunction and reported it as such.  Indeed it was a false alarm: as it was later determined, the satellite mistook the sun’s reflection off the top of the clouds for a U.S. missile launch.  Any believer in God would have to say that it was a special moment of grace that touched this man at just the right moment and he responded to it.

We are only now beginning to learn about the extent of the “near-misses” in the triggering of a nuclear war over the last 72 years.  Zbiegnew Brzezinski, who was President Carter’s National Security Adviser, has described his own experience where he had to decide whether a report that nuclear missiles had been launched by the Soviet Union against us was real.  It was in the middle of the night.  He was poised make the call to the President.  But then, like Lt. Col. Petrov, he held-off, making the gut-decision that it was not a real strike.

Former Secretary of State George Schulz, now 96, has recently expressed his concern over the “careless talk” about using nuclear weapons in today’s climate.  He used the term “broken arrows” to characterize the false-alarms over nuclear weapons which could have tripped their use, and he indicated their number has not been rare to date.

A crucial part of Our Lady’s message at Fatima 100 years ago was a call for the Prayer for Peace in the face of the threat of annihilating warfare.  Catholics, are we praying hard enough?

(Fr. Higgins)

Pastor’s Note from the Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Bulletin for October 22, 2017

The Altar Rail: Our Place at the Lord’s Table

First, my childhood memories of receiving Holy Communion at the altar rail: I received my First Holy Communion in May of 1969 at St. Joseph’s Church in Needham. I was eight years old. The parish School Sisters, the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, were in charge of our catechism.

I remember well the instruction we were given on how to take Communion. You were to take your place kneeling at the altar rail and not look down the rail to see where the priest was. Instead you were to pray and to think about how you were going to receive Jesus. When you heard the priest about to come to you, you closed your eyes, held your head slightly back, and opened your mouth wide enough so that the priest could place the Host on your tongue. After you received it was important for you not to move until the person next to you had also received, so as not to disturb their Communion. Then you could go back to your pew, kneel down, and continue making your Thanksgiving. It was a wonderful rite of passage for a Catholic child. 

Several years later, the mid-1970’s, St. Joseph’s as with many other parishes stopped using the altar rail for Communion. We started queuing up in lines to receive Communion standing. I remember how jarring it felt. Vague explanations were given to us about the changes being in keeping with Vatican II. One such justification offered was: “We are a ‘Pilgrim People’ and so we should be standing to receive Communion.” 

When I got to the Seminary in 1983 I heard the altar rail spoken of in one-sidedly negative terms as a barrier between the people and the sanctuary. This was not how I remembered it nor did it take into account the good feelings I associated with Communion at the rail.

We restored the altar rail here at Mary Immaculate of Lourdes parish in 2010. This was part of the mandate I was given by Cardinal Sean: to put in an altar rail to accommodate the Traditional Latin Mass Community coming over from the Holy Trinity German Church in Boston.

I would like to offer here a more positive understanding of the place of the altar rail than the characterizations of it as a barrier or an oldfashioned practice which has no use in today’s Church outside of Traditional Mass communities. That is the understanding of the altar rail as our place at the Lord’s Table.

In the offering of Mass upon the altar there is a movement from the Sacrifice of the Cross to the Mystical Banquet of Christ the Lamb of God. At the time of Communion the Altar of Sacrifice is now transformed into this heavenly Table of the Lord. The altar rail represents the extension of the Banquet Table to where the people come in order to receive their Eucharistic Lord. To kneel or stand at that altar rail is to take your place at the Lamb’s High Feast (“Blessed are those who are called to the Supper of the Lord!”) At the altar rail, as at a banquet table, you have other guests beside you, re-enforcing the communitarian aspects of Christianity. 

It is a visually and physically striking enactment of the beautiful words of the Lord’s coming in St. John’s Apocalypse: “Behold, I stand at the gate and knock. If any man shall hear My voice and open to Me the door, I will come in to him and will sup with him: and he with Me.” (Apoc. 3:20)  

Fr. Higgins
(Fr. Higgins)

Pastor’s Note from the Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Bulletin for August 20, 2017

A Month of “Respect for Life”

(Pastor’s Note from the Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Parish Bulletin for October 2, 2016)

In the United States each year the Month of October is designated as the particular month of the year in which we ought, as Catholics, to focus on the “Life Issues”.  Our Christian Catholic faith and our supernatural view of things enable us to recognize human life as a great good, possessing an essential value which nothing can take away.

This essential value of human life applies to each individual human life as well as to humanity as a whole.  Human life cannot be reduced or downgraded to its practical utility.  There is no such thing as “life unworthy of life”, as the advocates of euthanasia and sterilization of the disabled in the early 20th century claimed.

Each human being, possessing an immortal soul, is a unique, special creation of God and infinitely loved by Him.  Every person should be helped to understand this about himself: you are a unique, special creation of God and infinitely loved by Him.  You are not a “mistake”.  Your essential value does not depend on the circumstances of your origins.  You do not lose your value by becoming a “burden” on others.

Yes, we come to this conclusion on the absolute value of each human life as a matter of Christian faith-belief.  But that is nothing to apologize for!  Its truth is still engraved in every heart, and if we are faithful in bearing witness to it in the “public square”—and do it in the manner of the charity of Christ—then others will recognize it too.

It was Pope John Paul II who framed the contemporary debate in terms of the “Culture of Life” versus the “Culture of Death”.  This is an inspired juxtaposition.  We can easily be distracted in policy debates by the utilitarian arguments (e.g., having too many disabled people in society is a drain on public resources), or the anti-human philosophical ideas which abound (e.g., in order to preserve the eco-system of the planet, the human presence on the earth must be drastically reduced).

Stewardship of the earth and the organization of society with a just allocation of goods are indeed part of the challenge in building up a Culture of Life, but their claims cannot be allowed to supersede the intrinsic value of each and every human life.

During this Month of October, both from the pulpit and in my Pastor’s Note, I will be emphasizing the “Life Issues”.  There is so much “Culture Smog” that it is easy for us to become numbed to what is at stake.  The whole spectrum of the Life Issues is vast but I will enumerate some:

We come from God and we are going back to God over the course of this brief life’s journey.  Let us not fail to recognize the great dignity we have as special creations of God the Heavenly Father.

Fr. Higgins
(Fr. Higgins)

“The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself.  And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?  Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want.  This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”

—Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Part II: The Gates of Life

Part III: The Primary Moral Duty of Keeping Oneself Alive

The Public Life of Jesus: From Jordan’s Bank to Jerusalem

Conference II

(Pastor’s Note from the Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Parish Bulletin for February 28, 2016)

This is Part Two of this year’s Parish Lenten Mission, THE PUBLIC LIFE OF JESUS: FROM JORDAN’S BANK TO JERUSALEMClick here to read Part One.

How did people look upon this Man, Jesus of Nazareth? It is very evident that people considered His place of origin, Nazareth, as reason alone to reject Him? “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathanael (Bartholomew), one of the future Twelve Apostles asks disparagingly when he first hears of “Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth?” (John 1:45-46). And even in His place of origin Nazareth itself, the people of that obscure, impoverished village look down on Jesus the son of Joseph the carpenter as “beneath” them, or at least as no-one they could ever take seriously as a miracle-working rabbi, unless, maybe, He were to start performing wonders right there in front of them.

Several months after Jesus has inaugurated His Public Life, when He comes back to the synagogue at Nazareth, He is violently rejected. People are murmuring: “How came this man by this wisdom and miracles? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary?…” (Matthew 13:54b-55a) Why—He had not passed through the training of any Rabbinic school under a learned Master! “How doth this man know letters, having never learned?”

The “Carpenter’s Son”. In context this is a term used to describe the general work of a man who has to earn his daily bread by the strength of his own arms and whatever skill he may possess with his tools. St. Justin Martyr is the ancient source for stating that Jesus specially made “ploughs and yokes” (Contra Tryphon 88). Then, as ever, people make the most superficial judgments based on a man’s social standing and material good fortune. The lowliness of Jesus’ origins was a stumbling block to many, and played no small part in inciting the organized hatred of His enemies later on.

His ordinariness—which we who have the Christian faith gaze at in wonder: God’s condescension to us and His compassion—deflated the popular imagination of what the Great Messiah was going to be like. “We know this man, whence he cometh: but when the Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is.” (John 8:27) It was, of course, not known at the time, all that had transpired around Jesus’ Birth. This was Mary’s secret, only to be revealed later in the time of the Church: “But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

John the Baptist, who had begun his preaching mission a few months before Jesus, at least had the aura of an other-worldly Man-of-God. No-one knew of John’s origins: he had suddenly appeared out of the desert, an utterly strange man. “John was in the desert, baptizing and preaching the baptism of penance, unto the remission of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea and all they of Jerusalem and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” (Mark 3:6) His appearance co-incided with the time of Daniel’s Prophecy as to when the Messiah should at last appear, so the people were in great expectation. Many held John to be the Messiah, although John denied that he was anything more than his herald who had come to prepare the way.

So great was people’s attachment to John the Baptist that his mission only gradually decreased in favor of Jesus of Nazareth. For much of the first year of Jesus’ Public Life, John the Baptist’s Mission is still going on concurrently. Four times John gives explicit testimony in favor of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ and not himself. It is John who sends Jesus his first disciples from out of his own group, one of these being Andrew, the future Apostle and the brother of Simon Peter. Even after John’s murder at the order of Herod’s son Herod Antipas, and even after the preaching of the Gospel by the Apostles after Pentecost, a core group of John the Baptist’s followers tenaciously remained together, revering John and not transferring their allegiance to Jesus as the Christ.

The religious attachment to John the Baptist apart from Christianity has survived twenty centuries to our own day in the country of Iraq, among a sect called the Mandeans. Driven from their homeland by the recent strife a number of Mandean refugees have re-located in, all of places, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Whereas John was other-worldly and mysterious, Jesus was, to all appearances, an ordinary man, embedded in their everyday, ordinary world. He was so much a Jewish man of the Galilee. And while John lived a life of extreme deprivation, Jesus’ example was one of ordered enjoyment of life when He was in public.

Take, for example, the Wedding Feast at Cana. “And the third day, there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. And Jesus also was invited, and His disciples to the marriage.” (John 2:1-2) Jesus was a guest at a large wedding feast. We cannot even imagine John the Baptist being there.

We also see here Jesus’ attachment to His kinfolk. In this time and place, a wedding feast is the gathering of the whole clan. It is no wonder that the bridal couple ran out of wine, given the demand that this event must have made on their hospitality. And it is here, as we know, that Jesus performs His first public miracle, at the behest of Mary, His mother.

“And the wine failing, the mother of Jesus saith to Him: they have no wine.” (John 2:3) He changes the gallons of ordinary water which had been poured into the large stone pots reserved for the Jewish ritual purifications into the finest of wines. “This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee and manifested His glory. And His disciples believed in Him.” (John 2:11)

This first Public Miracle of Christ is also the ruling metaphor for what the whole Redemption of Christ is going to accomplish in the souls of those who will come to have faith in Him. He will take that “water” of ordinary, broken, and unredeemed human nature, and by His grace He will transform it and make it capable of sharing in the very life of God.

Fr. Higgins
(Fr. Higgins)